Draft Metrics: The Importance of Continuity in the NFL
By: Tony Villiotti
August 15, 2011
I'm sure every NFL team would agree that the ideal personnel situation is one where its starting lineup stays almost the same from year to year with newly drafted players used to upgrade the lineup and replace retiring players. A combination of player movement through free agency and the salary cap,
though, makes continuity pretty much a pipe dream and lineup changes are a way of life in the NFL. Adding injuries on top of player movement makes roster management and team building intricate tasks that are huge factors in a team's success.
It only stands to reason that teams that are most successful in establishing some modicum of continuity are more likely to experience on the field success than their rivals.
Draft Metrics decided to test this hypothesis by examining the following subjects:
• The "normal" level of continuity in the NFL
• Individual NFL teams and continuity
• Winning and continuity
• Free agency signings and continuity
The approach taken by Draft Metrics was to analyze the source of the players who started games for each NFL team in each season from 2002 through 2010 with particular notice given to how long each starter had been on that team. For example, if Joe Smith was signed by the Packers as a free agent in 2002 and started 16 games that season he would be counted as a first year starter, no matter how many years he played before moving onto the Packers. If he moved from the Packers to the Broncos in 2005, he would again be counted as a first year starter, this time for the Broncos.
Summary of Observations:
• Less than one-third of NFL games are started by players who has been on a team's roster for five or more years
• Teams with higher levels of continuity tend to win more games than teams with lower levels but there are exceptions
• Only the Steelers had more than half their starts from players with five years or more on their roster
• The Lions, Dolphins and Bills all had more than half their starts from players who had been on their roster for two years or less
• The Patriots were the most successful team (110 wins) in the study period and had the highest percentage of starts by players on
their roster for one or two seasons of any of the top eight most successful teams
• The Colts and Packers had far less starts from veteran free agents than any other teams
The normal level of continuity in the NFL:
The Draft Metrics study indicated that the vast majority of games started in the NFL are by players who have been with a team for four years or less. Games started were divided into three categories with the following results for the nine-year study period.
• 41.3 percent of all games started were by players on that team for one or two seasons
• 30.4 percent of all games started were by players on that team for three or four seasons
• 28.3 percent of all games started were by players on that team for five or more seasons
These averages exclude the Browns and Texans because their results would distort the averages. In 2002, for example, all of the Texans starters were first-year starters under the methodology used by Draft Metrics.
Individual NFL teams and continuity:
The appendix to this article shows a breakdown of games started for each NFL team. As can be seen, there is significant variation among the teams. This is best illustrated by the two teams at each end of the spectrum � the Steelers and the Lions. For the Steelers, only 19.5 percent of games were started by players who had been on the roster for one or two years versus 59.4 percent for the Lions. Players who had been on the roster for five or more seasons started 51.3 percent of the games for the Steelers versus 16.6 percent for the Lions.
The Steelers were the only team with more than half their starts from players on the roster for five or more seasons. Next closest were the Packers (41.7 percent), Colts (37.0 percent), Ravens (34.1 percent) and Jaguars (33.6 percent). This high level of continuity indicates that these teams were successful in retaining their players and avoiding heavy free agency losses. It also could indicate that they were more successful in the draft than other teams as they tended to draft more "keepers".
In addition to the Lions, both the Dolphins (54.5 percent) and Bills (53.0 percent) had more than half their starts from players on the roster for only one or two seasons (Browns and Texans are excluded for the reason explained above). Other teams having a high level of such starters were the Raiders (49.8 percent), Redskins (48.9 percent), Broncos (49.3 percent), and Cardinals (48.3 percent). The high level of turnover from these teams could be an indication of a high level of activity in the free agent market and/or substandard drafting. Free agency will be addressed, at least in some degree, in more detail later in this article.
Are the differences in continuity among teams a matter of strategy, circumstances of some other reason? It is Draft Metrics' opinion that it isn't so much a difference in strategy as it is a difference in organizational patience. Free agent signings probably seem like a shortcut to achieving success. Free agent signings may be an effective strategy when there are a relatively small number of "holes" to fill, but a strategy of relying on free agency does not seem destined for success. In the end, football is a team game and the most successful teams are more than the sum of its parts.
Winning and continuity:
The issue of winning and continuity is somewhat of a "chicken or egg" issue. Do teams win because of continuity or does winning breed continuity?
Draft Metrics looked at this issue from two perspectives -- individual season success and success over the entire nine-year period. Individual season success will be addressed first.
Following are the source of starters by individual season won-lost record (excluding Browns and Texans):
Wins Seasons Years w/ Players
1-2 3-4 5+
14+ 8 31.5% 33.9% 34.6%
11-13 55 34.2% 32.7% 33.1%
8-10 96 40.4% 30.0% 29.6%
5-7 73 45.5% 29.7% 24.8%
0-4 38 47.9% 28.3% 23.8%
Totals 270 41.3% 30.4% 28.3%
The above does demonstrate a positive correlation between continuity and winning. The teams that win more games generally have a higher level of continuity.
It may be even more informative to look at the individual seasons in terms of the distribution rather than the average. The following table reflects how many teams were higher or lower than average in each category. (For example, the table shows that 2 of the teams with 14+ wins had more than 41.3 percent of its starts from players who were on their rosters for 2 seasons or less). This gives a better indication of the consistency with which the continuity argument applies.
Wins Seasons 1-2 Yr. Players 3-4 Yr. Players 5+ Yr. Players
Higher Lower Higher Lower Higher Lower
14+ 8 2 6 4 4 4 4
11-13 55 11 44 32 23 36 19
8-10 96 45 51 42 54 41 55
5-7 73 46 27 31 42 21 52
0-4 38 25 13 12 26 9 29
Note: Higher and lower indicate a higher or lower percentage of games started than the overall average for each level of team tenure. 1-2 year players are compared to the overall average of 41.3 percent; 3-4 year players are compared to the overall average of 30.4 percent; and 5+ year players are compared to the overall average of 28.3 percent.
This indicates that while continuity is important, the lack of continuity is not impossible to overcome.
The most noteworthy exceptions include:
• The Patriots registered 14 wins in 2010 with just more than half their starts coming from players with one or two years on their roster
• In the Saints' Super Bowl year, 42.0 percent of games started were from 1-2 year players and only 17.1 percent were from 5+ players
• The Bengals register only four wins in 2010 despite having 38.9 percent of their starts from 5+ year players and only 24.1 percent from 1-2 year players
Draft Metrics also looked at success over the entire nine-year period by team. The following table shows a breakdown of teams categorized by number of wins over the nine-year study period.
Wins Seasons Years w/ Players
1-2 3-4 5+
81+ 7 31.2% 31.3% 37.5%
72-80 11 41.8% 31.4% 26.8%
60-71 6 44.7% 28.8% 26.5%
0-59 6 48.9% 28.8% 22.3%
Totals 270 41.3% 30.4% 28.3%
The teams with the most wins over the nine-year study period were the Patriots (110), the Colts (109), the Steelers (93), the Eagles (91) and the Chargers (88). The Patriots appear to be the most opportunistic teams of this group in terms of willingness to add new blood, with the Chargers not far behind them. While both had a higher level of continuity than the average team, they weren't very far from the average with the Patriots having 32.6 percent of their starts from 5+ Year players and the Chargers having 29.6 percent.
The five teams with the fewest wins were the Lions (37), Raiders (51), Rams (54), 49ers (56) and Cardinals (57). None of the five had a higher level of starters than the average, though the 49ers did have a lower percentage of starts from 1-2 Year Players than average.
Free Agent Signings and Continuity:
This discussion includes only veteran free agent signings. For purposes of this article, Draft Metrics defines a veteran free agent signing as a player signed who previously played for another team.
The following table shows the number of games started over the nine-year study period by veteran free agents for each NFL team. The "Win" column indicates the team's rank in number of wins over the nine-year period.
Team Win FA Starts   Team Win FA Starts
Washington Redskins 24 1501   New York Jets 18 981
Detroit Lions 30 1300   New England Patriots 1 980
New Orleans Saints 11 1271   Carolina Panthers 17 972
Minnesota Vikings 14 1271   Kansas City Chiefs 21 968
Miami Dolphins 22 1209   Chicago Bears 14 937
Atlanta Falcons 11 1150   New York Giants 8 928
Tampa Bay Bucs 20 1146   Jacksonville Jaguars 19 898
Denver Broncos 9 1110   Tennessee Titans 11 855
Oakland Raiders 29 1072   Dallas Cowboys 9 838
St. Louis Rams 28 1072   San Diego Chargers 5 716
Buffalo Bills 25 1071   Pittsburgh Steelers 3 700
Cincinnati Bengals 23 1064   Baltimore Ravens 7 665
San Francisco 49ers 27 1034   Philadelphia Eagles 4 653
Arizona Cardinals 26 1013   Green Bay Packers 6 456
Seattle Seahawks 14 994   Indianapolis Colts 2 325
While there are exceptions, the obvious conclusion is that teams with lots of games started by veteran free agents have not fared as well as teams with fewer games started by veteran free agents. In a future analysis Draft Metrics will study the issue of starters lost through free agency to try to complete this picture.
Appendix: Information by NFL Team -- (percentage of starts):
Team Years w/ Players Wins
1-2 3-4 5+  
Average 41.3% 30.4% 28.3%  
Arizona Cardinals 48.3% 30.3% 21.5% 57
Atlanta Falcons 42.5% 33.3% 24.2% 77
Baltimore Ravens 33.9% 32.0% 34.1% 82
Buffalo Bills 53.0% 28.3% 18.7% 59
Carolina Panthers 41.9% 32.7% 25.4% 73
Chicago Bears 37.2% 33.9% 28.9% 74
Cincinnati Bengals 39.1% 31.5% 29.4% 62
Cleveland Browns 56.5% 32.2% 11.3% 52
Dallas Cowboys 37.8% 32.1% 30.2% 78
Denver Broncos 49.3% 26.9% 23.8% 78
Detroit Lions 59.4% 24.0% 16.6% 37
Green Bay Packers 27.9% 30.4% 41.7% 84
Houston Texans 60.1% 31.0% 8.9% 55
Indianapolis Colts 30.7% 32.3% 37.0% 109
Jacksonville Jaguars 39.3% 27.1% 33.6% 71
Kansas City Chiefs 45.1% 27.9% 27.0% 67
Miami Dolphins 54.5% 24.6% 20.9% 64
Minnesota Vikings 47.8% 27.9% 24.3% 74
New England Patriots 37.9% 29.5% 32.6% 110
New Orleans Saints 45.8% 35.6% 18.7% 77
New York Giants 35.4% 34.2% 30.4% 79
New York Jets 44.6% 25.9% 29.5% 72
Oakland Raiders 49.8% 27.3% 22.9% 51
Philadelphia Eagles 30.8% 33.1% 36.1% 91
Pittsburgh Steelers 19.5% 29.2% 51.3% 93
San Diego Chargers 37.6% 32.8% 29.6% 88
San Francisco 49ers 38.7% 34.5% 26.8% 56
Seattle Seahawks 41.0% 27.7% 31.3% 74
St. Louis Rams 44.5% 28.3% 27.3% 54
Tampa Bay Bucs 41.5% 30.0% 28.4% 70
Tennessee Titans 36.5% 35.6% 27.9% 77
Washington Redskins 48.9% 31.5% 19.7% 60
Note: This article was originally published on Tony Villiotti's website, DraftMetrics.com and is being reprinted here with the permission of the author. Draft Metrics was established in 2010 but its roots were planted long before. Villiotti's obsession with the NFL Draft began in 1969. Over the years, his interest shifted from predicting draft choices to trying to better understand the draft's importance by examining its eventual outcomes.
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